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Three Trojans snap right to it in USC quarterback competition

Max Wittek, Cody Kessler and freshman Max Browne begin the battle to succeed Matt Barkley at marquee position.

March 05, 2013|By Gary Klein
  • The competition for USC starting quarterback began between Max Browne, Max Wittek and Cody Kessler during the first day of spring practice on Tuesday.
The competition for USC starting quarterback began between Max Browne,… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Cody Kessler's most noteworthy play for USC came last season after the quarterback was told by coaches to wear a different jersey number on special teams in the first half against Colorado.

He was the backup to Max Wittek against Notre Dame and in the season-ending Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech, but he did not play.

So the third-year sophomore spent the last two months doing what he has always done since arriving at USC:

Preparing for his opportunity.

On Tuesday, in the first official practice of the post-Matt Barkley era, Kessler, fellow sophomore Max Wittek and freshman Max Browne began a competition that could extend into training camp.

"It's wide open," Kessler said afterward.

USC has not had a quarterback competition since 2009, when Barkley was a freshman.

There is no time frame for naming a No. 1, Coach Lane Kiffin said.

"We've got to find the right guy," he said, "and when we find that out, when it shows itself, then we'll decide."

After the Trojans finished 7-6 last season, All-American receiver Marqise Lee said the team got a chance to start over.

"Brand-new," he said, "new slate."

Lee, who established a USC record with 118 receptions last season, said all of the quarterbacks did "great" in their initial bid to succeed Barkley.

"They all throw a little bit different," he said. "So I've just got to get that chemistry."

Wittek possesses the most game experience. He played fairly well in the loss to Notre Dame but struggled against Georgia Tech.

On Tuesday, he looked and sounded confident.

"Any time you can get experience," he said, "it's a good thing — good or bad."

Kessler was on his way to being named the most valuable player of the day, Kiffin said, before redshirt freshman lineman Jabari Ruffin leaped to intercept a Kessler pass. Nevertheless, Kessler got off to a good start.

"Cody really shined and made a lot of plays that were out of rhythm," Kiffin said.

Browne, who said he had "first-day struggles," mainly played out of the shotgun formation in high school, so he is adjusting to taking snaps from under center.

"The footwork is not totally new," he said, "but as far as getting under there, that's something I've got to get used to quickly."

Just as there no timetable for naming a starting quarterback, Kiffin is apparently in no hurry to make determinations or announcements about who will call plays next season.

Kiffin promoted quarterbacks coach Clay Helton to offensive coordinator after Kennedy Polamalu was fired last month. But Kiffin has been the play-caller for each of his three seasons as head coach.

Asked if he would like to call plays, Helton smiled and said, "We're fortunate to have several very good offensive coaches and a tremendous play-caller that has won a lot of game in Lane Kiffin. So we'll focus on spring right now and worry about that when we get to fall."

Said Kiffin: "We're focused on what's going to get us better right now. We're not worrying about next fall."

The Trojans will spend the spring learning a new "52" defense under coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

"We're going to let these guys loose a little bit," Pendergast said.

Etc.

Linebacker Dion Bailey, safety Gerald Bowman and linebacker Scott Starr will be sidelined for spring practice because of injuries, Kiffin announced. Defensive linemen J.R Tavai, Greg Townsend and Cody Temple did not practice, but it is anticipated they will return at some point during the spring, Kiffin said. Defensive linemen Christian Heyward and DeVante Wilson decided to leave the program before the start of the spring semester, Kiffin said. Tight end Christian Thomas, who did not play last season after hip surgery, is in the process of medically retiring.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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